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Nutritional Tips for Trail Running
Trail running is quickly becoming one of the most popular sports in the outdoor industry. Only a few years ago, trail running was considered a sport and was seen as a faster alternative to hiking. However, with the rise of ultra-distance running on trails, the prestige that comes with winning a trail race has greatly increased. As trail running progresses, it’s important that as a runner you remember some important bits of nutrition information that will make any trail run more enjoyable.
Hydration: The key to performance
Proper hydration is at the forefront of any activity you participate in. If your body is on the move, you need to make sure you stay hydrated. Water is essential for the human body. 60-70% of our body mass is water, 90% of our brain mass is water, and 75% of muscle tissue is made up of water. Water is also a major component of blood – an important carrier of glucose, oxygen and other nutrients. Normally, your body loses 64-80 ounces of water daily through urine, feces, sweat, skin, and expired air. This water needs to be replaced by daily fluid consumption of 64-80 ounces. Another, albeit less scientific, way to determine daily fluid requirements is to evaluate your urine output. Dark and concentrated urine is a sign of insufficient fluid intake. Urine should be pale yellow clear and abundant. Trail running is a four-season sport. You can run in practically any weather condition, on almost any terrain.
In hot weather, the only way to make sure you don’t get dehydrated is to stop before it happens. When you are thirsty, you are already dehydrated. That’s why it’s important to hydrate well before any event. The eight-glass-a-day cliché doesn’t take into account your standard active athlete. If you’re training in the heat, don’t worry about how many glasses you drink, but instead focus on drinking periodically throughout the day. Always keep a water bottle close to you and sip from it regularly. This will ensure that your cells are maximally hydrated at the start of any workout. Although water is best to drink if you’re planning to sit around all day, if you’re active you should hydrate with a carbohydrate solution, preferably anywhere between 6-8% carbohydrate. This will ensure that not only does your body get the hydration it needs, but it also maintains the right amount of electrolytes. During a trail run, focus on continuing to sip from your water bottle. It’s best if you can either run with a handheld water bottle or find a comfortable hydration pack. Weigh yourself before and after hot weather workouts to ensure proper rehydration. For every pound you lose while running, rehydrate with 24oz of fluid or 150% of your total water intake.
In the cold you have to remember that you still need to hydrate. Your hydration needs in cold weather are just as important as in hot weather. You may not feel the need to drink more fluids; However, you still need to avoid dehydration. While you won’t lose much fluid through sweat, you still need to have fluid on hand, especially if you plan to run for more than thirty minutes. Try to drink every ten to fifteen minutes to ensure you don’t feel thirsty.
Choosing the right fluid is critical to your hydrating success. Find a carbohydrate drink that will sit well with your stomach and budget. If you’re running, train with a drink provided on the course, because you’ll be drinking when you get out there. Look for an electrolyte drink with 4% to 8% carbohydrates. Drinking a 10% carbohydrate solution can potentially cause gastrointestinal issues, which can be uncomfortable even if you’re training or racing. A high sugar content can slow the release of fluid in your intestines and delay the rate of absorption. With a combination of 4-8% of carbohydrates your body is able to absorb the proper balance of electrolytes which is recommended for any event lasting longer than an hour. Although caffeinated beverages provide hydration, they are not the best choice as excessive caffeine consumption can interfere with sleep patterns and have a mild diuretic effect. Try to limit your intake of these fluids throughout the day especially if you are planning on a long distance trail run.
Get Geared: Finding the Right Hydration System
If you are new to trail running you need to find a hydration system that works best for you. This can take time and will only improve with experience, so be patient. For a long distance training trail run, look for a hydration system that is lightweight, comfortable and can carry enough fluid to meet your hydration needs. Personally, I prefer running with handheld water bottles, as holding water bottles reminds me of the need to drink. If I run with a hydration pack, I tend to consume myself during the run and forget to drink. However, by holding the bottles I have a constant reminder that I need to stay hydrated. The only downside to carrying a water bottle is that you have something in your hand. This can be a problem on long distance runs when your body is tired and the last thing you want to do is hold on to a multi-pound water bottle. That’s why running with a pack can be an advantage.
At first, hydration packs were cumbersome and not worth the inconvenience they brought. However, that has changed in recent years as the outdoor industry has continually improved on lightweight, comfortable hydration packs. The pack is suitable for cold weather. When you first start running you will probably wear extra clothes. Shedding some layers without a place to hide them can be a problem; However, with a pack you can easily keep them away. So if the weather turns cold you can take them out. Also, you probably won’t drink as much fluid because you can better regulate how much fluid you keep in your bladder by how much fluid you carry. If you enjoy running in warm weather with a hydration pack, look for one that is able to keep your back cool. The main problem I found with early hydration packs was that they trapped the heat that was drawn off your back. I found myself losing large amounts of fluid through sweat from the hydration pack and rubbing my back. Either choose a hydration pack like the Patagonia Houdini Hydration Pack that has shoulder straps and a ventilation system or use a lumbar pack like the CamelBuck Altera Hydration Pack to stay cool and hydrated in the hottest conditions.
Watch Your Calories: You Need Fuel!
If you are planning to run for more than an hour you must take into account your nutritional needs as well as hydration needs. Your body size and the activities you choose will determine how many calories you need to consume while exercising. In general, most experts recommend that athletes eat 100 to 150 calories per hour to maintain proper glycolytic and caloric balance. No matter what type of food or gel you use for fueling, carbohydrates remain the best source of energy for training and running. Don’t forget to ditch real food for synthetic food alternatives. Fig Newtons, bananas, peanut butter sandwiches and Larabars are all great options that can easily be packed in a hydration pack or taken on a trail run.
As your body pushes the limits, make sure you’re providing the right fuel for the job. In summary, staying well hydrated throughout the day is critical to your workout success. Look for a 4-8% carbohydrate drink that your stomach can tolerate if you plan to run longer than an hour and plan to consume 100-150 calories per hour of exercise. Finally, experiment with different hydrating options until you find a hydration system that works for you. Everyone is different, but taking the time and finding the right way to stay hydrated and fueled will have major benefits for any athlete in any discipline.
For more information on outfitting yourself for trail running, visit
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